Times of Malta, 1st March 2009

Walking at Xaghra il-Hamra is one of nature’s best attractions. The majjistral, the fresh wind that blows from the northwest, is very welcome as it brings with it a feeling of wellbeing. One of the best views in our islands can be gained near the tabletop edge of the park’s sheer cliffs, which provide a bird’s eye view of wild terrain below with rolling rockscape stretching out behind.

The open garigue and cliffs were there long before political parties. The birds, flowers and lizards were around eons before anyone came along with the bright idea of declaring the area a national park – and save it from being turned into a golf course.

The recent events surrounding the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum in Valletta echoed the landmark overturning of the unpopular proposed golf course at Xaghra il-Hamra. Wide public protest over the project led to a U-turn and, in what has been described as a pre-election gimmick, the government snatched this treasure from the jaws of developers and declared it a national park, calling it ‘Majjistral Nature and History Park’.

The day the golf course project fell through there was great joy among environmentalists. The public had the good sense to pick up whatever the environment impact assessment commissioned by the developers (the Malta Tourism Authority) could have played down or made to seem insignificant. The protests came about because the project was inching ahead, skimming over all the hurdles, and public trust in a system that appeared to be warped was reaching rock-bottom.

Once the obstacles became insurmountable and the fate of the proposed golf course was sealed, a press conference was held in January 2008 to declare the setting up of the park and a flurry of designs for information boards. An action plan drafted by the three environment groups entrusted with managing the park has been submitted to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and is awaiting approval.

Nature Trust and Din L-Art Helwa have organised clean-ups at the park, including removal of an old dump site near the Manikata church. Gaia Foundation is also involved, setting up an irrigation system for trees and shrubs to be planted on Saturday in the area to be regenerated.

During the week, schoolchildren can get in touch with nature by taking part in environmental education events at the park and there are guided walks for visitors on weekends. To get there using public transport, Golden Bay (marked Ramla tal-Mixquqa on park maps) take the 652 bus from Sliema.

The first thing one notices on arriving at the bay is an old building the foundations of which date back to the time of the Knights. It is proposed to schedule this building as part of the park’s protection, but this has not yet been backed up by a legal notice. The park abounds in other architectural features, ranging from World War Two structures to rock cuttings suspected to be ancient tombs, all waiting for legal protection.

It is taking a little longer than expected to realise the vision of an integrated management of the park’s features to safeguard the natural, cultural and rural heritage and enrich the visitor experience. A new chairman of the park board has just been appointed. After the first meeting in nearly six months, things should start to move again at last.

All structures in the park, whether legal or illegal, have been mapped. Discussions are being held with the Land Department to discuss the removal of squatters. A ranger has been employed to carry out patrols of the area.

Future park staff and a co-ordinator will operate from a shelter constructed out of wood once the permit is granted by Mepa. Another permit pending is to authorise the closing off of much of the park to cars. Until this happens, nothing can be done to stop them.

Planned restoration of a farmhouse and Ghajn Znuber tower are on hold until legal issues can be resolved with the leaseholders. Hunting and trapping are other issues yet to be fully addressed within the park boundaries.

Walkers, single or in groups, dot the landscape. Horse riders and mountain bikers come clopping and bumping along the rocky pathways. They now have a sense of belonging, an aura of entitlement, which was not there before.

On the edges of the park, men are tending to their bird trapping huts nervously, conscious of being observed. Signs at some of the park entrances have gone up and already there is a glob of fluorescent spray burning an orange hole in one of the emblems.